Sociology 319

March 29, 2006



The readings for this section are the two article by Baurillard: “Disneyworld Company” and “The Mask of War.”


a. Introduction


Baudrillard has become the examplar of postmodernism (although he may deny being a postmodernist, beginning his analysis with Marxism and modernity, and developing what he considered a more radical approach – a society of simulations, simulacra, implosions and hyperreality, where it is increasingly difficult to distinguish image from reality and where signs and simulations become or are society.  Following this approach from the 1970s, Baudrillard develops the view that we are at the end of history and history may be reversing itself, so we live in a “post-orgy state of things” (Baudrillard in Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 137).  This leads him to a cynical conclusion that all we can do is “reach a point where one can live with what is left.  It is more a survival among the ruins than anything else” (Baudrillard in Best and Kellner, 1997, p. 117), although survival in the ruins usually means that people begin to rebuild.  In spite of his conclusions, many of the ideas of Baudrillard are insightful and provide a useful way of considering the contemporary era. 


Jean Baudrillard (1929   ) was born in Reims, France in a civil servant family.  He taught German and then became a sociology professor at the University of Nanterre from the 1960s through 1987.  His most famous works are The Mirror of Production (1975), Simulacres et Simulation (1981, translated into English in 1994), and the controversial The Gulf War did not take place (1995).  In France, Baudrillard is a public intellectual, who makes pronouncements on current phenomena and is regarded by some as a postmodern guru – like Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s or John Raulston Saul in Canada today.  The articules in the handouts were written for Libération, a daily newspaper published in Paris and widely read throughout France by intellectuals, professionals, and people on the political left. 


Many of the notes that follow come from the two books by Best and Kellner (BK).


b. Early Writings


In his early work, Baudrillard began by examining modernity, the consumer society, and Marxism in a fairly conventional manner.  Like the critical theorists, he examined the development of “the new system of mass consumption bound up with the explosive proliferation of consumer goods and services” which creates a “‘new technical order’, ‘new environment’, ‘new field of everyday life’, ‘new morality’, and new form of ‘hypercivilization’” (BK, 1991, p. 112-3).  The mass commodification and expansion of exchange values has vastly expanded in contemporary capitalism, so that objects, signs, and exchange value dominate society and the people in society.  Like other analysts of modernity, Baudrillard takes a look back to the premodern and notes that while exchange occurred in these societies, it was symbolic exchange – gifts and reciprocity associated with various rituals, spirituality, or other forms of social obligation.  These systems tended to reinforce tradition, rather than separating people from it as is the case with commodity exchange. 


With capitalism, exchange value comes to dominate the exchange of goods, so that markets, quantitative calculation of exchange values, and money become the dominant form.  Political economy, especially Marxian analysis, developed as a mode of analysing this, and production and the needs of production come to dominate society.  For Baudrillard, even Marxian political economy may be part of the system of rationalization and reproduction of the capitalist order.  That is, Marxian political economy argues that capitalism is exploitative and inefficient in production, and in arguing for socialism and communism posits a better form of organization of production and exchange.  Baudrillard argues that Marxism does not challenge the logic of the primacy of production in directing society and creating progress and in challenging the central role of production and productivity.  It is a critique of productivist modes of analysis that leads Baudrillard in a differerent analytical direction.


Baudrillard begins his argument by arguing that in addition to use and exchange value, there is also “sign value, whereby commodities are valued by the way that they confer prestige and signify social status and power” (BK, 1991, p. 114).  While Marx argues that use values are given, and exchange value implies the existence of use value, Baudrillard notes that use values themselves are problematic, in that they are constructed through exchange value and “a rationalized system of needs and objects that integrate individuals into the capitalist social order” (BK, 1991, p. 114).  In making this argument, he does not move beyond critical theorists, who made much the same type of argument.


Where Baudrillard begins to develop his ideas in a different direction is to emphasize symbols and symbolic exchange.  In his writings in the early and mid 1970s, he argued for a return to symbolic exchange as a means of breaking the logic and demands of production, commodity exchange, and political economy.  Symbolic exchange could be revolutionary in that it “provides a mode of activity that is more radically subversive of the values and logic of capitalism than the sort of practices advocated by Marxists which he claims are but a reflex of the ‘mirror of production’” (BK, 1991, p. 116).  Baurdillard states “the mirror of production in which all Western metaphysics is reflected, must be broken” (in Smart, pp. 461-1).  Baudrillard calls his perspective a political economy of the sign.


At this time, Baudrillard was impressed with marginal groups such as blacks, women, and gays, what sociologists have termed the new social movements, which “subvert the code of racial or sexual difference, and thus are more radical and subversive than socialists who operate within the code of political economy” (BK, 1991, p. 116).  These arguments were developed in the aftermath of the 1968 events in France, where radical change initially seemed possible, but was thwarted by traditional forces, including some of the established socialist and communist parties and groupings.  Out of this grew various ultraleft and new types of groups which argued for a radical break with the dominant economic and political forms.


c. Simulations, Implosion, and Hyperreality


Baudrillard regards Marxist thought as part of the Enlightenment and westerm culture, part of a universalist approach that misconceives what has happened in western and other societies (Smart, pp. 461-62).  In the later 1970s and during the 1980s, Baudrillard’s analysis broke with the Marxist approach and expanded on the view that symbols, signs, and simulations had become so all-encompassing, that it is not longer possible to distinguish the real and the symbol.  Baudrillard thus argues that we have entered a new era that is beyond the modern, and this constitutes a break with an earlier era – much like the break between the premodern and the modern.


In the modern era, the problems of industry, production, use of labour, exploitation, and accumulation dominated the organization of the economy and society.  In the current period there is “a new era of simulation in which computerization, information processing, media, cybernetic control systems, and the organization of society according to simulation codes and models replace production as the organizing principle of society” (BK, 1991, p. 118).  This is a passage “‘from a metallurgic into a semiurgic society’ … in which signs take on a life of their own and constitute a new social order structured by models, codes, and signs” (BK, 1991, p. 118). 


Semiotics refers to the theory of signs – types, meaning, relationships among signs.  A sign is any information carrying entity from language to road signs. 


An example of how Baudrillard approaches this is contained in his short article “Requiem for the Twin Towers” where he asks the question “Were the Twin Towers destroyed, or did they collapse?” (Baudrillard, 2002, p. 47).  He proceeds to argue

The architectural object was destroyed, but it was the symbolic object which was targeted and which it was intended to demolish.  One might think the physical destruction brought about the symbolic collapse.  But in fact no one, not even the terrorists, had reckoned on the total destruction of the towers.  It was, in fact, their symbolic collapse that brought about their physical collapse, not the other way around. (p. 48).


What Baudrillard is arguing is that the signs, simulations, and codes that characterize the current era have developed to a point that it is these that structure society and make it difficult to distinguish these signs and symbols from social reality – or the social reality becomes the signs and simulations and these structure the social world.  In developing this analysis, Baudrillard develops several new concepts.


Simulation or Simulacra.  Simulations are processes whereby events or situations in the past are replaced with virtual, electronic, or digitized images and signs.  While a drama may simulate real life, we generally think of this as representation of some part of the social world – institutions, relationships, and interactions that idealize or characterize aspects of the social world.  Television has carried this much further, so that the images simulate many different and hypothetical aspects of social life.  Simulacra denote representations of the real but where the essence of the real may be missing.   What Baudrillard argues is that these simulacra “are so omnipresent that it is henceforth impossible to distinguish the real from simulacra’ (BK, 1997, p. 101).  That is, we live in a society of simulacra so that it no long makes sense to distinguish some underlying reality from the simulacra.


Hyperreality.  This is hyperreality – “the blurring of distinctions between the real in the unreal in which the prefix ‘hyper’ signifies more real than real whereby the real is producted according to a model” (BK, 1991, p. 119).  This hyperreal is the “end result of a historical simulation process in which the natural world and all its referents have been gradually replaced with technology and self-referential signs” (BK, 1997, p. 101).  No longer is there an underlying reality which has an existence apart from the simulations and simulacra.  Rather, what we consider to be social reality is indefinitely reproducible and extendable, with the copy indistinguishable from the original, or perhaps seeming more real than the original.  Video games become more real than other forms of interaction, theme parks which are simulacra become more desirable than the originals (Las Vegas, Disneyworld), and even nature becomes better viewed through national parks and reconstructions. 


Implosion.  Baudrillard uses this term to refer to the process whereby the image or simulation and reality collapse on each other and become the same, so that there is no longer any distinction between the two.  This is

a process of social entropy leading to a collapse of boundaries, including the implosion of meaning in the media and the implosion of media messages and the social in the masses. … The dissemination of media messages and semiurgy saturates the social field, and meaning and messages flatten each other out in a neutralized flow of information, entertainment, advertising, and politics (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 121). 

All the different parts of the social world implode, leaving no separation between formerly distinctive parts of society – politics and sports become entertainment, or the latter become the former.  With the O. J. Simpson case, it was difficult to separate entertainment, legal issues, private, public, and the social reality – all imploded together to create a grand spectacle. 


If Baudrillard is correct, then earlier forms of social theory may be inadequate to analyse this postmodern society.  Earlier analysis focussed on signs, symbols, and meaning (Mead and symbolic interaction), fashion (Simmel), and power of the media (critical theory), but generally argued that these were means by which people communicated based on some underlying social reality.  That is, there were subjects or individuals who developed a sense of self through communication, and used this interact with others, thus developing the patterns, institutions, and structures of the social world.  Implicit in this form of analysis is that there is a subject and and object (Mead’s other, interaction among individuals in symbolic interaction, etc).   Meaning is associated with knowledge and consciousness of others, symbols, and relationships. 


Baudrillard argues that the subject-object distinction disappears in the contemporary setting so that signs and symbols do not have meaning in the conventional sense.  In fact, meaning itself becomes questionable in these circumstances and he argues that there has been a destruction of meaning in the contemporary era.  While there may be meaning associated with earlier forms of social reality, these are “dead meaning and frozen forms mutating into new combinations and permutations of the same” (BK, 1991, p. 127). 


While Baudrillard carries through an analysis of hyperreality further than other theorists, and shows some of its implications, he does not appear to have developed an analysis of a way out of this era or even a means of analyzing it sociologically.  That is, a sociological analysis provides a means of understanding and critiquing the social world.  Baudrillard’s analysis argues that it is not really possible to do this in the conventional manner.  Instead, he proposes various strategies and perspectives that people might adopt, but in postmodern fashion does not provide directives or modes of analysis.


d. Readings from Baudrillard


The second of the articles is from the electronic journal C-Theory (, edited by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker in Montreal.  This is a journal of postmodern theory, with discussion of media related issues.   


In these writings, Baudrillard does not carry out a comprehensive or reasoned form of analysis.  Rather, these are journalistic articles, attempting to create impressions by giving examples of events and situations that characterize the postmodern world.  Baudrillard attempts to be humorous and ironic, with short ideas where he tries to impress readers by example rather than rational argument. 


i.  Disneyworld Company   Page references are to the version at


First page.  Baudrillard considers society to be a spectacle, and argues that things have reached a point where it is difficult to separate the spectacle and social reality – the two are so intertwined through each constructing the other that they are inseparable.  Further, to separate these implies that society has some underlying characteristics (human nature, will, solidarity?), and the spectacle is guided by forces such as profits, technological imperatives, or attempts to manipulate the public.  The analysis of Baudrillard points to the difficulty of making such assumptions or conclusions, and that the contemporary era is characterized by society itself becoming spectacle or simulation.


In this context, Baudrillard has a fascination with the Disney corporation and its products.  These are spectacles, where Disneyland, Disneyworld, and Eurodisney create a virtual reality, but in which “reality becomes a spectacle … where the real becomes a theme park” (3rd ¶).  Visitors to Disney quickly realize how they are managed and processed in the name of entertainment and having a good time.  The virtual reality of these theme parks becomes a standard for entertainment and a good life, at least in the eyes of some. 


Smurfland (1st ¶). Irony of unemployed steel workers becoming the workers of leisure time and when Smurfland failed, they again became unemployed.  He might have compared this with Flint, Michigan (see Michael Moore film “Roger and Me”), where the decline of the auto industry in that city led to mass unemployment and poverty there.  The leaders of the city proposed to redevelop the city’s economy by establishing an automobile theme park in the city – i.e. to recover prosperity not by reestablishing the real industry, but by developing the simulation of the industry.  Of course, that failed and Flint has only slowly recovered, if at all. 


Disney Pornography (2nd ¶). Fantasy of Disney taking over 42nd street, Times Square region in New York – street with sex shops, porn movies, prostitution, and general sleaziness – and developing this spectacle into a “legitimate” form.  In fact, while this is fantastical, this area has been redeveloped as spectacle, although not by Disney.


Gulf War (2nd ¶).  Baudrillard has written extensively about the virtual nature of the Gulf War, how it was produced as much for the media and North American audiences and images, as for its actual geopolitical effects.  Here Schwarzkopf is reported to have celebrated the end of a virtual war in a theme park that celebrates virtuality.


Real as blood transfusion for the “reality show,” the spectacle (3rd ¶).  These spectacles feast on the real, but the latter imitate the spectacle, and become the spectacle. 


Second page, 1st ¶, Baudrillard notes that Disney was frozen in liquid nitrogen, presumably hoping to emerge in a different era where things had progressed.  In another of his writing, Baudrillard notes that Disney may be surprised if he wakes up in the 15th century, or some other time.  In the meantime, people have become extras in the Disney virtual reality. 


Also note the reference to the genome project.  Baudrillard often uses language or ideas from natural science, often changing their meaning.  But here he refers to the resequencing and recombinations of the human gene that are proving possible through genetic engineering.  If applied to seeds and human bodies, where does the real end and the virtual begin?


2nd ¶ refers to the Benetton advertisements that used photographs and images of heroin addicts, AIDS patients, and victims of torture.  But his arguments on the influence of fashion on body styles, clothing, and adornments note that “the virtual take over the real as it appears, and then replicates it without any modification.”


In the next three paragraphs, Baudrillard argues that reality (the social world) has been cloned and transformed into performance (from Goffman?).  That is, the social world has moved beyond the creation of spectacle (the original Disneyland) to a situation where we are “no longer alienated and passive spectators but interactive participants … [in a] huge ‘reality show.’”  Unlike Weber or critical theorists, who consider organizations and media to be separated from people, thus creating alienation, in this new world we are not alienated beause we become part of this new reality – although as interactive extras.  That is, to be alienated implies a separate and essential form of human nature and well-defined human subject.  Baudrillard does not agree that there is such a subject, so that we are neither actors or spectators in the earlier sense.  He argues that Disney has won.  At one level, he considers this to be obscene, but at another, this is the way things are, and is the postmodern condition and not really reversible. 


The last ¶ notes how time has imploded or been collapsed in these circumstances, so that there is no sense of different eras or different times – “all the places and all the periods in a single atemporal virtuality.”  In addition to theme parks doing this, the juxtaposition of images in the media and the mixing of times, places, and images through the internet confuses time and space and makes it more difficult to remember or imagine real time.


ii.  The Mask of War.   Notes on Jean Baudrillard, “The Mask of War,” from, November 3, 2005.  Originally published in French in Liberation, March 10, 2003, ten days prior to the invasion of Iraq by military forces of the United States.


War appears as a mask for terror and a planetary strategy of power that operates against all people.


The following notes refer to the paragraph (¶) numbers in the reading, from 1 to 14.


¶1 and 2.  War as a nonevent.  The event was what occurred on September 11, 2001 and the war is an attempt to cancel, obliterate, and launder this event.   The war actually took place prior to the invasion in that it was imagined, planned, discussed, and made a media event prior to it actually beginning (see also ¶6).  This demonstrates the difficulty of distinguishing the real from the spectacle, with the spectacle ongoing and without end (to erase 9/11), a process that had already begun prior to the invasion.   In contrast with modern wars, where it was clear who the enemy was and what was being fought out, this war does not have an enemy or a final purpose, so at one level it began before the invasion but since it does not have an enemy or purpose, it does not take place.


¶3 and 4.  Another way that this is not a war is that the crime has not taken place so the aim, to the extent that there is an explicit aim, is prevention.  But prevention of what?  It is preventive of anything that “could disturb the hegemonic world order” and one that “under the sign of security will become a planetary strategy.”  


Baudrillard presents organic images (prevention, contraception, death, ablation – amputation of tissue or body part) of the non-war.   The biological presumably represents a certain reality, but in this case the spectacle structures the real – ablation of (removing) evil and death, prevention as a result of the events around the “non-war.”


Also note “sign of security” (¶ 4), probably a reference to Baudrillard’s view that there is a political economy of signs characterizing post-modernity and that structure the current era.   In this case the war is proclaimed under the false(?) sign of security.   [In fact, security may very well have been worsened as a result of the war].  The sign does not have meaning but becomes a way that the U.S. government explains or justifys the war.  But it is a sign that, Baudrillard argues, leads to a planetary strategy of domination.


¶5.  Digression on 9/11, which itself was spectacle that occurred before it was possible and, since it was not considered possible, could not be prevented.   In an earlier article, Baudrillard argues that it was the collapse of the symbols that preceded and led to the physical collapse of the twin towers, the towers that symbolized a global order. 


¶6.  In contrast, the “non-war” has been “envisaged, programmed, and anticipated” so that it need not take place – it had its effect even prior to the invasion.  While he admits it has a certain reality (although reality in quotes), it is virtual in that it is a clone of the first Iraq war, operated by a cloned president.  


¶7 and 8.  Strategy – to prevent (contraception) and ultimately “create a securitized order, a general neutralization of peoples.”   It is not the security of the people that this Iraq war is concerned with, but the security of the order or neutralizing any opposition to this order.  While securing oil supplies and U.S. domination of the Middle East may also be goals, these are secondary to the strategy of blackmail, neutralization, and prevention.


¶9.  Result is terror rather than security.   Rather than a war against terror, the result is a expanded terrorism.  But it is not the terrorists who terrorize people, but the system itself which does this.  


Signs and symbols become the key aspect of globalization, not the market, capital, or economic aspects.   Rather, it is the symbolic system that has emerged triumphant in creating a new global order.  It is not ideological differences (socialism, fascism, democracy) that structure conflicts, rather it is the coalition of all powers who act together to preserve this symbolic order – it is this symbolic order that dominates and creates a new world order.   The problem for the world order though is that it is terrorism itself that can be the counter-force to the symbolic system.  


¶10.  A further irony is that while the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism is sold under the guise of humanitarianism and democracy (GWB regularly argues this is the reason for the U.S. being in Iraq), it is impossible to tell who is the enemy.  Hostages and  terrorists fuse with the ordinary population, so the solution is a biological one – to erase all those involved, the rest of the population along with the terrorists.  [Reminiscent of the U.S. general who said about destruction of a village in Vietnam that we had to destroy the village to save it].   For this new global order, the “populations themselves are a terrorist threat.”  


¶11-12.  The result is a “planetary civil war” which is a war against the population by a system without “representation or legitimacy.”  Baudrillard appears pessimistic about stopping the war arguing, similar to critical theorists like Marcuse, that opposition to the war itself becomes useless or ineffective since “it will take place no matter what.”


¶13.  During the modern period, power emerged from representing the people or a population, with political structures in place that could lead to discussion, debate, protest, and change.   But with power no longer constrained by the people, by its opposite (Cold War), this system has returned to state of nature (Hobbes – war of all against all).  However, this new state of brutality is a technological one (advanced weapons and forces of telecommunication), rather than a decline into a state of natural brutality as in traditional conflicts and wars.  


Further, this new form of power does not have an enemy (since it is preventative/contraceptive), so there is no legitimacy.  It operates only for its own ends and for perpetuating itself.   And the irony is that this system of domination and power acts against the very populations it is supposed to protect.


¶14.  Hope?   Since the system is a triumph of the symbolic order, it can become apparent that the symbols are not effective and are vulnerable.   After all, if the system to fight terrorism produces terrorism and people become unsafe as a result of actions by this system in the name of safety, a questioning of the symbolic order will occur.  


However, Baudrillard’s message is mixed.  At one level the symbolic system may collapse and yet the memory of 9/11 is not erased. 



Baudrillard, Jean. 1988. Selected Writings, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1999. Revenge of the Crystal, Pluto Press, London.

Baudrillard, Jean. 2002.  The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers. Verso, London.

Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner.  1991.  Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, The Guilford Press, New York.   (BK, 1991)

Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner. 1997. The Postmodern Turn, The Guilford Press, New York.   (BK, 1997)

Rosenau, Pauline Marie.  1992.  Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences:  Insights, Inroads and Intrusions, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.


Last edited on April 1, 2006